Preventing common illnesses in temporary shelters

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Medicine Cabinet
Teodoro B. Padilla

EVEN AS clashes continue, the government is now training its sights on the early recovery and rehabilitation of Marawi more than a month after the start of the siege.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) announced a plan to build a tent city to temporarily house thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) from Marawi to ease overcrowding in non-residential evacuation shelters such as churches, gymnasiums, and schools. The tent city, according to the government, will serve as a refuge for evacuees to give way to physical reconstruction of the war-torn city.

The DSWD said that there are around 69,296 families — 338,536 individuals — displaced by the armed conflict. At least 6,244 families are staying in 83 evacuation centers, while 63,052 others are either with family or friends.

Following armed conflicts, populations have high rates of illness and mortality due to the breakdown of health systems, flight of trained staff, challenges in disease control programs, destroyed infrastructure, and exposure to health hazards. Most often, evacuees share living spaces and sanitary facilities in crowded centers. Individuals may also suffer from health concerns such as injuries, infectious diseases, and chronic illnesses.

Recognizing the health needs of evacuees from Marawi, more than 2,000 kilos of boxes containing medicines were flown to Iligan City and Cagayan De Oro via the Philippine Air Force. These donations from members of the PHAPCares Foundation aim to complement the government’s own stock of medicines and resources for disaster response.

While the treatment of diseases is crucial in evacuation sites, preventing illnesses during emergencies is as important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has laid down ways to prevent illnesses during and after a disaster. Many of these are general prevention guidelines that must be undertaken by affected individuals themselves.

First on the list is to keep food and water safe. It noted that not all food might be safe to eat during and after an emergency. Water may also not be safe for drinking and cooking. If instructed by local authorities, there may be a need to boil the water. Let the water boil for a minute more when it comes to a constant boil.

Second is to always wash one’s hands with soap and clean water for at least 15 to 20 seconds before preparing or eating food, after toilet use, and after participating in cleanup activities. Children must also be assisted so that they wash their hands especially before meals.

Third is to have a share in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The CDC said that close living quarters increase the amount of contact between people, while toilet facilities are shared and new shelter arrivals may bring infections to other residents and staff.

For example, diseases that cause diarrhea (with or without vomiting) are called gastroenteritis. The primary goal of treating diarrhea is to prevent dehydration. Children and the elderly as well as immunocompromised persons are at risk for dehydration from loss of fluids.

Apart from regular hand washing to prevent diarrhea, the CDC recommended to ensure food is stored, cooked, prepared, and served in a hygienic manner; to avoid shaking hands during outbreaks; and to move patients to an area of the evacuation center set apart for those who are ill to reduce the chance of infecting other people.

Another way to prevent illnesses, specifically heat-related diseases, is to regularly drink water and nonalcoholic fluids, and for individuals to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

For the treatment of open wounds, it is important to clean out all open wounds and cuts with soap and clean water. Wounds must also be covered with clean, dry bandages. There might also be a need to consult a doctor to determine if further treatment is required. For more information on preventing illnesses after a disaster, visit

Medicine Cabinet is a column of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), representing the research-based medicines and vaccines sector in the country. The author is the executive director of PHAP. E-mail the author at